- Starbreeze Studios
Made2Game Syndicate review score: 7/10
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360
Format Reviewed: PS3
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
All the way back in 1993, Bullfrog released an isometric, sci-fi action-strategy game called Syndicate, which put players in control of a four-man squad of super-enhanced “Agents”, and sent them into its Blade Runner-inspired neo-metropolis to complete various nefarious missions on behalf of either EuroCorp or The Church of the New Epoch syndicates. Players were given remit to approach the missions aggressively or tactically – or to simply run around with one of the coolest weapons ever and “indoctrinate” the general public, brainwashing them to pick up guns and riddle the enemy with bullets on sight; roaming the streets with miniguns made you feel like you were controlling the fates of four trench coat-wearing Arnie clones, and the story was functional and unobtrusive to gameplay – which are all reasons why Bullfrog’s Syndicate is rightly lauded as one of the best experiences to emerge from gaming’s formative years.
To avoid further labouring the point: Starbreeze’s Syndicate is not that game. It is nothing like that game, and aside from the main themes, it has nothing to do with that game. In fact, if it weren’t called “Syndicate”, you’d have a bunch of gamers scratching their heads, turning to their friends and saying: “Hey, Ralph, don’t you think the protagonist in ‘Futuristic Agents of Murder’ looks a lot like those little dudes in that old PC game?” Well, gamers with friends called Ralph, anyway.
However, with that now said we shall attempt to refer to the original as rarely as humanly possible from here on, whilst reinforcing that the lack of broad similarities between this game and Bullfrog’s classic is not actually a Bad Thing. Didn’t expect us to say that, did you? You expected us to come over all purist and critical, didn’t you? Well, if truth be told, we still might, as Syndicate is one of those titles that lets itself down every time it approaches brilliance, yet redeems itself every time it gets anywhere near the gutter. For every awesome, exhilarating shootout there’s a boss who plays like the 3D ghost of something out of a 90’s action game; for every annoying invisible wall and funnel-like corridor there’s a supercool tech ability or incredi-weapon.
These “tech abilities”, as we so crassly put it, are made available by dint of the DART Chip, an implanted neural interface that links everyone who’s everyone to the data-feed of their multinational conglomerate of choice. Digital media and external advertising are remnants of the past in Syndicate’s world, with information, commercials, TV shows and personal upgrades beamed straight into the brain via the Chip. It’s also a world where consumerism is king and corporations are more important than countries – where a CEO has more power than a President. It’s synonymous with the world of Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution in this regard, although that’s where the similarities begin and end. Yes, it explores themes of consumerist greed, corporate governments and human enhancement; yes, it exists in a near-future world of neon lights, not-quite-human operatives and black leather trench coats, but if we’re totally honest, Syndicate is overshadowed by Human Revolution in almost every way that matters.
Breach and clear
You take on the role of EuroCorp Agent Miles Kilo, fitted with an experimental DART-6 Chip and sent out into the field quite possibly way too early. The first mission is a chance to get to grips with the basics (aided by dull, slightly intrusive Virtual Reality training sessions) as you accompany your mentor Agent Merit (voiced by the always superb Michael Wincott) to the headquarters of Aspari Technology, one of EuroCorp’s leading rivals.
The gunplay is, thankfully, solid from the off. This is no RPG where you need to “level up” a ballistics skill to kill someone with a bullet – it’s much more of a straight FPS and, as a result, the guns feel weighted and meaty from the moment you curl a finger around the trigger. The weapons are also occasionally very interesting: a gun that allows you to mark a target and fire homing rounds at it without aiming isn’t breaking entirely new ground, but it can be way more fun than simply pointing and shooting. If there’s a real complaint to be levelled at Syndicate, it’s that the linearity of the mission structure and the frequent scripted events repeatedly threaten to make the whole experience seem generic and tedious. You’re rarely required to sneak anywhere and don’t often get the chance to choose your own path to objectives; Syndicate has a habit of channelling you from point to point, and such forced progression feels incredibly dated in today’s market.
There is an illusion of tactical play in the aforementioned tech abilities, here referred to as Breach skills. Afforded by Kilo’s DART-6 Chip, they come in three specific flavours: Suicide, which overrides an enemy’s chip in a fairly self-explanatory way; Backfire, which Breaches the bad guy’s gun and causes it to explode in his hand; and Persuasion, which is a nod to the original game’s indoctrinator and forces opponents to temporarily switch sides. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to unlock all three powers, and because you can’t upgrade them in meaningful ways or alter them to work differently (thus adding a tactical element), they become very dull very quickly. The Breach mechanic itself is great, but because you can’t tailor your abilities to suit a certain situation or to play the game a certain way, you never feel as badass as you expect – or want – to. You can upgrade Kilo every time you kill someone important and messily extract their Chip, but the upgrade path is limited in ambition and scope.
Anyway, back to the mission, and before you know it you’re up to your groovy future-shades in espionage, double-crosses and shady underground organisations as you come face to face with a terrorist cell intent on destroying the Syndicates on behalf of the “Un-Chipped” – those civilians who have shunned the new technology and consequently been abandoned by a progressive society. The writing is excellent, and the voice acting by Brian Cox, Rosario Dawson and the aforementioned Wincott is always top-notch. The story itself, while nothing particularly new, is solid enough to compel you on through the relatively short (6 hours-ish) campaign.
Of course, once you’re done with the solo game, there’s still the multiplayer to get stuck into – and Starbreeze have done wonders in translating the world and its mechanics into a 4-player cooperative campaign. Based on the 1993 original, Syndicate’s multiplayer offers nine objective-based missions requiring teamwork and skill to complete effectively.
It does a fantastic job of making you feel like an Agent, far more so than when you’re blundering about as the puppet-like Kilo in the solo game. Microphones are imperative for success, as co-ordinated actions and forward planning are the order of the day – on the later levels one ill-timed mistake can easily see your squad wiped. But what the multiplayer does that the story campaign can’t is evoke a sense of the original – though dissimilar in execution, the reimagined missions and use of a four-man squad is that much closer in spirit. So much so, in fact, that you wonder why Starbreeze decided to structure their game around another technophobic, neo-future, consumerism-is-God storyline when Deus Ex: Human Revolution wrapped up such themes in a lovely gold-tinted bow only a few months ago.
As a tactical, squad-based FPS with more free-form, objective-based gameplay and less seen-it-all-before plodding, Syndicate might have been exceptional. A lack of choice in the story or route through the game severely hampers longevity or replayability, and even with a scoreboard after each mission and scattered collectibles, there’s little to entice you to return to a cleared area unless you’re a dedicated trophy hunter. Even more disheartening is the fact that stealth doesn’t play a bigger part, especially given that this is from the studio that brought us The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay and Assault on Dark Athena – games that dripped with tension and atmosphere, and used the beautiful lighting effects for which the Swedish developer is so famous to maximum effect.
Graphically, Syndicate swings pendulously between gorgeous, detailed environments and generic, dishwater corridors, but on the whole the world is well-realised and the character animations and interactions are as impressive as we’ve come to expect from Starbreeze. At times the HUD can feel invasive as there’s just so much to look at and the screen gets so busy, but it remains in context throughout and never feels superfluous.
Overall, Syndicate plays like a very good game with a few parts missing. It’s an indoor shooter with no cover mechanic, an espionage thriller with no stealth, an RPG with no levelling and a re-imagining with very little substantial homage. The linearity of the levels and storytelling, coupled with the fact that the game’s best moments are scripted, makes Syndicate feel old in many ways – particularly when juxtaposed with Human Revolution (its closest contemporary peer) where the memorable moments are a result of the player experimenting with the game world and bending its rules around a given situation.
Syndicate cannot fairly be called a bad game – because it isn’t – but it can’t rightly be called masterpiece either, even a flawed one. Although it does feel like a modernisation, it feels more like a remake of some generic old FPS from the PSOne era rather than an update of the clever, addictive tactical shooter with which it shares its name. As such it’s definitely worth a look to any discerning shooter fan, but for those hoping for something more strategic, cerebral and original, this simply isn’t the Revolution you’re looking for.
Words by Mick Fraser (Twitter: @Jedi_Beats_Tank)
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